Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Found: Redux

A U.S. bumper sticker in 02018
An element of "Found" from
Wired 16.10* slideshow

In the latest issue of Wired, Found is back; owing, it would seem, to popular demand.

The magazine has also decided henceforth to use a "wisdom of crowds" approach to generating content for the feature.

For the past six years, Wired magazine's Found page has presented our best guess at what lies over the horizon, from touchscreen windshields to organ farming. Turns out, this little exercise in futurism is one of your favorite pages (as we learned recently when it took a short sabbatical). So we've decided to turn Found over to our readers — what do you think our world will look like in 10, 20, or 100 years?

Each month, we'll propose a scenario. Then it's up you: Sketch out your vision, then go to wired.com/wired/found to upload your ideas, see other submissions, and vote for your favorites. We'll use the best suggestions as inspiration for a future Found page (giving full credit to the creators, of course).

Turning to readers for ideas rather than killing the feature for want of internally generated ones is, in my view, a very positive move, and probably overdue.

Still, I find the first assignment a little disappointing: "Imagine the future of the McDonald's Happy Meal."

Not to be a wet blanket, but this is not a "scenario". It's an open ended brand-based brainstorming task. No problem there, necessarily, but it's liable to be more interesting to that particular company than to anyone else. (And why McDonald's? I'd have thought that such a comprehensively culture-jammed entity would be better avoided, to reduce the odds of barrage of clich├ęs. Now, granted; I used McDonald's myself just recently in a scenario to illustrate possible changes in the food system over the next decade. I did however select it freely from among a wide variety of possible approaches.)

Why am I making a point of this? Because in my experience pitching the design brief at the right level of abstraction makes a lot of difference to the quality of what people produce, especially across the set of submissions. The trick is to find enabling constraints, such that the hard edges set down are walls for the imagination to push off from, not tight lines to colour between. Ask the right question, and the variety of responses generated in parallel should be illuminating in its own right, yielding a crop of alternative images of possible futures, not just fodder for an "official" interpretation later. You want the variations in response to be meaningful and interesting. So permit variation along interesting dimensions: different futures for an established brand are likely to start cute, and get boring fast (except, as I've said, for the owners of the brand); on the other hand, variations on what comprises a meal is an incredibly rich site of human diversity. Think of all the wildly differing cultural responses to that problem: now, applying that kind of anthropological thinking over time is key to the art of futuring. Helping other people do that is also an art.

So what? Well, for a future artifact design task, unless this is an exercise in product placement, in which case brand is all important, I'd suggest that the Happy Meal assignment both underspecifies and overspecifies at the same time. Solution to the latter problem: a looser (less constrained) subject, more open to an interesting multiplicity of interpretations (e.g., the future of fast food; or lunch; or snacking; or ways to spend five dollars). Solution to the former problem: a more specific timeframe (e.g., a meal in 02019, as in the warmup task for Superstruct) or hint about the type of scenario (e.g., fast food in a post-Singularity world).

Also, the display format for entries (squashed into a box inset at the bottom) does not display readers' contributions to their best advantage. How about them getting their own page, collectively if not individually? Should the new strategy for generating contributions prove successful, I would expect that to change.

Still, meanwhile we can welcome this encouraging sign that Wired realises where some of its best ideas are likely to come from in future.

Related posts:
> Is Found really lost?
> Future-jamming 101

(via Metafilter)

* 16.09 on the header seems to be a typo, the October edition is 16.10.


Anonymous said...

stuart, maybe you should use the "wisdom of crowds" approach to generate scenarios for wired!

Jake Dunagan said...

An advantage in using the "Happy Meal" is clearly its ubiquity. As we've discussed and incorporated into our scenarios and designs--using a ready and recognizable language or icon allows us to subvert the inherent assumptions that come along with that icon. No big news there--well known culture/future jamming technique, but highly effective.

That said, I totally agree that Micky-Ds, in all its incarnations, has been culture jammed so hard, you'd think that lump of coal would be a diamond by now. There are plenty of worthy (and fresher) candidates out there, certainly, for Wired's crowds to riff on.

Nontheless, this is a significant step in the right direction for Wired.

Stuart Candy said...

Sean, thanks for the encouragement ;)

Jake, I think you're right, ubiquity (recognition) is the key here; we're clear on that.

It's just that something struck me the wrong way about this task, not outright (e.g. that McDonald's is too easy a target for "Found") but from the point of view that they're making a shift from a single published take on a topic to a body of reader-submitted work, which changes things. If you want the entry set as a whole to be really interesting, room needs to be left for people to make their own discoveries. Identifying and playing with (for future-jamming purposes) a recognisable brand is one site of discovery that I'd avoid specifying (unless I were getting paid to colonise the future, a.k.a. advertise). This reminds me of those tragic shopping-mall colouring-in competitions where every picture is the same horrifying portrait of Ronald McDonald, or a happy family in a Toyota. So what's next for Found -- the future of Nike shoes? The future of the iPod? The future of Coca-Cola?

No, Wired didn't need to brand this pre-emptively (even if a version later produced in-house for publication did so); readers can do that for themselves, and in different directions, as one dimension of their engagement and exploration. The option taken here perhaps unintentionally begins to resemble a cheap corporate propaganda exercise.

To me there's no question that the crowdsourcing format is a major improvement. My point is simply that having others think about futures may require a different strategy from the one which best serves a single-point broadcast model (the last six years of Found being described by Wired, tellingly, as "our best guess at what lies over the horizon"). As you know, the underlying philosophical differences between single future and plural futures are highly significant, and manifest in all sorts of ways large and small. In this language, Wired remains very much about "the future" rather than exploring alternative futures. Maybe that will change as the "pluralising" ramifications of engaging the crowd begin to sink in, and the monologue of a printed magazine format transitions more fully to the conversation of the online bazaar.

Jake Dunagan said...

Yes, "branding" in its original sense, is a claim on some tangible property. Branding, or coca-colonizing the future, is a much trickier business.

Agreed on the point of the "pluralizing" nature of crowds/freedom. No matter how well the rules are defined, it is hard to keep "the crowd" within the lines. I'm reminded of a story about Nike's campaign to allow people to have their own personal messages sewn onto their shoes at the factory. Naturally, someone asked for "Sweatshop"--I suppose recognizing the conditions of the actual shoe production. Nike balked, of course.

I wonder if/when Wired's narrow parameters are contested, debunked, and debased, what kind of editorial hand they will take. I wonder how far the piss can be taken out of McDonalds (or any other potential advertiser) and still be published. Whatever appears in the magazine will tell us not only about the level of sophistication of Wired's readers, but also the values of the magazine and its editors.

I suppose we have to submit an image of Ronald McDonald buggering a cow and start to find the where the line actually is.

Stuart Candy said...

Ronald McDonald buggering a cow?

That, right there, is why they pay you the big bucks.